Hidden Gems

Sold for the Benefit of the Captors

Surely many researchers dream of finding an unknown draft of a speech written by Abraham Lincoln; the doodles of JFK; the Ark of the Covenant; or whatever the movie National Treasure had thought was hidden somewhere in the vaults of the National Archives. The reality is that every archival file holds a hidden gem, for that information might be the key to solving a family’s mystery, or explaining their history. Sometimes, though, a document might be a bit more than a hidden gem. Let me explain.

I’ve been researching British sailors captured from the merchant vessel Dolphin and held as prisoners during the War of 1812, on behalf of Bruce Murduck, a genealogist in Canada. I’ve spent a bit of time reviewing the Registers of British Prisoners of War 1812-15.* The registers are a bit of a bear. They are mostly in alphabetical order, but only by the first letter of the surname. The entries are not in date order, and there are entries also placed in an appendix, plus a continuation of the appendix as entries for some letters in volume two. Looking for a man’s name means checking through many handwritten lines, and to be thorough, reviewing nearly every page in both volumes. At the back of volume one, I came across a most curious, unbound, folded piece of a paper.

Copied at the National Archives, Washington DC

Copied at the National Archives, Washington DC

“Preserve these sheets they may be wanted,” signed by J Beerce, and then lower down on the page, and upside down, “List of Slaves not Entd in General List.”

I unfolded the paper, and a list of 47 men appeared, some marked as slave, and some marked Negro. There are eight columns on the page, untitled, but they seem to follow the pattern elsewhere in the register: name, description of person, vessel on which they were captured, vessel by which they were captured, date of capture, where captured, where they were held, and finally, the date of what happened to them next, and what happened.

For example, James Baptiste, Seaman of the Sloop Searcher, captured by the Schooner Rapid in June 1813 off the coast of Belize. Taken to New Orleans and on 29 July 1813, “Sold for the Benefit of the Captors.” Seven men were sold on 29 July 1813 in New Orleans: James Baptiste, Thomas Clarke, Bristol Clarke, Sharper Forbes, Ranter Forbes, Thomas Forbes and Prince William Henry.

Copied at the National Archives, Washington DC

Copied at the National Archives, Washington DC

“Sold for the Benefit of the Captors:” that would be to benefit the war effort, to benefit the United States. The fate of others was “Sold by Order of the District Court.” Some died. And for some men, the information is blank, unknown.

But these men are not unknown. This document, a folded piece of paper that nearly 200 years ago a J Beerce suggested be saved, offers a genealogist, an historian, an archivist the opportunity to make these men known.

Will you help me tell their story?

Certainly I’m not the first person to see this document, nor the first to write about it. But I do not think it is well known. I’ve brought this document to the attention of several archivists at the National Archives, and it was received with much interest. I can’t fit the entire list, or a high-resolution copy of it on this blog, but I would be happy to share. Just contact me. All I ask is that you keep me posted on your research and discoveries, and share your results.

*Registers of British Prisoners of War, 1812-1815, 2 Volumes. Record Group 45: Naval Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library, 1691 – 1945. National Archives Building, Washington, DC.

Hidden Gems

While “billions and billions” of genealogical documents are digitized and searchable online, an equal number reside in libraries, court houses and archives, waiting for a request or a researcher to don white gloves and unfold their secrets. Living in DC affords me the opportunity to assist researchers in other locales by pulling pension records from the National Archives or wedding licenses from the DC Courthouse. A recent request sent me to the Gallaudet University Library Deaf Collections and Archives, the “world’s largest collection of materials related to the Deaf.”

Certainly the hundreds of newspapers, bulletins, journals and other publications on the worldwide Deaf community would help any genealogist researching a family with Deaf members, however,the matriculation records and pupil statistics records housed in the archives offer all sorts of personal data on students who attended these institutions. I worked with the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf Applications, a record set that dates back to 1824, examining documents ranging from 1848 – 1863.

PA School for the Deaf application

Circa 1863 application questions

The applications are on tabloid-sized vellum paper, handwritten answers to pre-printed questions. The questions changed slightly over time, but of the applications I reviewed, the questions asked about the birth date of the applicant; information about his or her parents including financial status; information and sometimes names of siblings; questions about the demeanor of the applicant; and how the applicant became deaf, if not from birth. Really unique and valuable information!

In the case of the work I did, the family knew their ancestors had attended the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. The Census also provides clues to finding out if there might have been Deaf ancestors in your tree. Beginning in 1830, enumerators asked the head of household about the number of “deaf and dumb” people in the household in three different age groups, and it also asked the same question regarding slaves and “colored persons.” In 1840, the same questions were asked and the same categories maintained. In the 1850 Census, the name and age of the person, along with the question “whether deaf and dumb, blind, insane, idiotic, pauper or convict” was asked. A question regarding the ability of a person to hear was asked through the 1880 Census.

Once one moves from the reaction to the lack of understanding of being Deaf relayed in the Census questions, a new avenue of research opens. Obviously, if the family lived in Pennsylvania, or perhaps Ohio or another nearby state, the first place to look would be the index to the Pennsylvania school records at Gallaudet Archives. The Archives also houses the pupil statistic records for Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, which became Gallaudet University. There were more than 30 schools for the Deaf in the US during the 1800s, meaning many more places to research, and hidden gems to discover.